Spectacle is the newest addition to the Boston Harbor Islands. Like all the other islands, it’s been around since the last Ice Age. But for the last 50 years it’s been an abandoned city garbage dump with smoldering underground methane fires. Before that, Spectacle was the site of a factory that rendered the city’s dead horses into glue and hides.
Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel project led to the island’s reincarnation as the park we see today. Beginning in the early 1990s some 4,400 barge-loads of dirt excavated from the Big Dig were used to cap the old dump, before the addition of topsoil and vegetation. The island’s height increased by 60 feet.
The “new” Spectacle Island finally reopened to the public in 2006 with a visitor’s center, a cafe, a substantial marina, and ferry service, making it a hub of the Harbor Islands Park.
Most sailors approach Spectacle on the west side, either headed for the island’s marina or enroute to the Long Island bridge. Moderate depths of 6 to 14 feet at low and buoys on the shallow areas mean this is uncomplicated; the water stays deep enough for most sailboats to get as close to shore as they’d care to.
The east side is quite different. Here off-lying rocks and shoals extend the length of the island, while tidy new riprap on shore creates the impression of a bold coastline. Much of the excavated material from the Big Dig came to Spectacle by barge to “cap and fill” the island. Extensive changes to the visible parts of the island are obvious; changes to the nearby waters are still uncharted as of 2007. It’s best to pass the east side of Spectacle a careful distance off.
For a look at changes to the waters around Spectacle, see the chart essay.
Inexplicably, Sculpin Ledge, south of the island, catches a boat or two every year.
Boats don’t often anchor off Spectacle. For most of the 20th century it was literally a dump, off-limits to the public or under construction. Now open, there are no obvious anchorages. Waters east of the island are exposed in almost every direction. On the opposite side, Western Way is heavily travelled by boats going under the Long Island bridge — including a full schedule of big, fast-moving water shuttles.
There are ten moorings to the north of the marina. These can be reserved and paid for on Dockwa.
The Spectacle Island Marina on the west side opened to the public in 2006. For the 2020 season the marina was first come first served and no charge to tie up. Check Dockwa for the latest information. There is some shelter from wakes behind its pier. Note that the innermost slips have very little water at low and are not suitable for keelboats.
It will be interesting to see how Spectacle develops. Of the islands open to the public, it’s closest to downtown, with the best docks, an active ferry schedule, and the most facilities for visitors. Clearly the hope is that Spectacle will be an attraction in it’s own right while serving as a gateway to the rest of the harbor islands.
The overlapping city, state, federal and private agencies that own, manage and fund the islands is a skein that’s difficult to untangle. The result so far of this quirky structure is a park full of islands each retaining a unique identity. Spectacle adds a new dimension.
The man-made landscape and proximity to the city give Spectacle a transitional feel. It’s not the mainland, but nor does it quite give you the half-wild, another-world feel of the outer islands, like the Brewsters or even Lovell.
Looking south from the visitors center towards Long Island.
One Hour Ashore
The ranger we spoke with said the single best attraction on the island is the view back to the city from the north drumlin. It’s a 2.5 mile loop from the marina.
Off the Beaten Path
Walking the other way, towards the south drumlin, gets you views out towards the rest of the islands.
The visitors center has a nicely executed exhibit on the island’s history. It’s quick and it’s free.
Favorite tidbit is that the north end of the island used to have a set of range lights marking the channel into the Inner Harbor.
Facilities / Fitting Out
Spectacle has no supplies for a sailboat. There is water, toilets, and a seasonal snack bar ashore.